Peter Gearin finds it hard to choose between neighbours Mauritius and Reunion.
The sound of fear reverberated from the left and it was like a child running a wooden stick along a corrugated-iron fence. The sound moved quickly and it shook the air around me. I heard it once, then twice. Then it stopped.
Standing on an active volcano heightens the senses like little else on Earth. Even the sound of the wind whipping around the crater's enclosure is enough to make you think the next eruption could render you obsolete. Beside the wind, all you hear in this near-lunar landscape is the rush of air as it expires from your mouth, as you take in the sheer ridiculousness of glaring into one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
The week after my visit, Piton de la Fournaise on Reunion Island would spew ash and lava for two days and I'm not sorry I missed it. You don't mess with volcanoes, even those in a pleasant holiday destination in the Indian Ocean. When volcanoes aren't happy, you pay your respects and leave. Quickly. Then you fly out before the planes are grounded. But the thing about live volcanoes is they attract a crowd. I counted 146 cars, five minibuses and two tourist buses in the car park. All the visitors have at their disposal is a small kiosk and gift shop, plus two smelly toilets operated by a foot pedal. And a volcano.
The truth is volcanoes give you ample warning when they're ready to open their bowels and this one is possibly Reunion Island's greatest attraction, if you don't count its reef-fringed beaches or stunning wild scenery.
If this makes Reunion Island sound a lot like its neighbour Mauritius, you would be right. The two Indian Ocean islands are so close that by the time the aircraft bridging the capitals of Saint-Denis and Port Louis reaches cruising altitude, it's time for cabin staff to collect the water cups and buckle up for landing. The flight takes just 40 minutes, which means getting through customs and finding your luggage is the longest part of the journey.
It would be convenient, then, to see them as smart and sassy twins in the world's family of luxury islands. They are close in size and have a distinctively French flavour, which is a somewhat tart mixture of fresh herbs and Gallic audacity. It's also true that their inhabitants share a love of creole cooking and a passion for glorious seafood.
The problem with this happy-families scenario is the island siblings not far from Africa are as close as the Seine and the Loire rivers and are as similar as Roquefort and camembert.
Mauritius, of course, is the high roller with the worldly reputation. It has been a favoured destination for European honeymooners for decades, attracted to its year-round summers and promises of a perfect beach and gorgeous meal. At a cost, no doubt, but money buys consistency and quality.
Reunion Island is technically "European" - an official department of France 9300 kilometres from Paris. It's also a tourism greenfield, an untouched jewel that hasn't attracted a lot of attention from antipodean tourists more familiar with the attractions of Asia and the Pacific. A catalyst for change has been direct flights from Sydney to the island, which began in 2009. Australians make up a soupcon of Reunion Island's guests.
So now it's easy to travel directly to Mauritius or Reunion Island, which one should you visit?
Much of Mauritius carries a five-star rating. Once you walk through the palace-style gates of a Royal Palm or Dinarobin resort, you're in a dream-sequence of aqua water, bronze skin, champagne and gently waving palm fronds. Indeed, one Royal Palm staffer mentioned over my stunning swordfish at a lunch cooked by Michelin-rated chef Michel de Matteis that Russian oil barons are fond of this very private, rather stately resort. They can order a $2000 helicopter ride from the airport and be given complete privacy, while other equally private guests can shuffle around in bathrobes or laze around on padded day beds, contemplating their next award-winning meal.
What you will find at Mauritian resorts are superb pools, excellent food (not usually limited to one in-house restaurant), exclusive shops and a parade of beautiful people in fashionable clothes. "Eco" is also becoming an important selling point. The recently built Trou aux Biches boasts an array of environmentally agreeable features, including its own water-treatment plant, ozonated swimming pools and recycling of its waste products.
Of course, most accommodation options are expensive, even if they come in different shades. The Asian-themed Shandrani is an "all you can eat"-style resort, with all-day, all-night access to a range of quality food and alcoholic drinks brought directly to you on your lilo. Even more alarming - and definitely more sobering than the free bars at Shandrani - is that what you see is not necessarily what you get. That stunning water that rims these expensive resorts might appear deep and delectable in the brochures but at some resorts the shallow reef begins five metres from the water's edge. (At others, such as Trou aux Biches and Dinarobin, it's easily as nice as it looks.)
Frankly, affluent guests being ferried past shanty towns and tea plantations at speed will find little to do outside of the resorts. Those feeling a dose of "resort fever" can walk with the lions at Casela Bird and Nature Park, try every conceivable flavour of rum at La Rhumerie de Chamarel or search in vain for authentic labels in the Port Louis shopping strip. A small chop on the water during a catamaran sunset cruise is about as rough as it gets.
The same can't be said for its French kissing cousin. If Mauritius is a topiary, Reunion Island is a wild bush. A typical day might involve a bus ride on a dodgy, hilly road that leads to a quaint township, Cilaos, which has an old church, an embroidery museum once visited by Francois Mitterrand and a restaurant at the end of a dirt road that serves choko gratin and rum concoctions fermented in large glass jars.
Topography is the star here. For that you can blame its three calderas - dramatic landscapes left after volcanoes fold in on themselves after they erupt. Much of Reunion is built on these "cirques", which means that walking on the edge of an active volcano is just one of many adventures. Others include canyoning, hiking or paragliding.
Yes, there are some lovely resorts. The Grand Hotel du Lagon, for instance, is elegant and charming - resolutely French. But unlike its Mauritian counterparts, this resort is a base from which you choose your own adventure, rather than a destination in itself.
Much of the time you're likely to be looking over a cliff or staring at a hole into the centre of the Earth. That volcano always has the final word on Reunion Island.
The writer was a guest of Beachcomber Resorts and Flight Centre.
Air Austral flies direct from Sydney to Reunion Island twice a week. There are connections to Mauritius daily. Return airfares to Reunion Island start at $1103 a person. 1300 939 414, flightcentre.com.au.
Reunion Island: five nights in a superior room at the Grand Hotel du Lagon is from $999 a person, twin share, including airport transfers and breakfast daily.
Mauritius: quality resorts abound including the four-star Le Victoria, where a five-night stay in a Superior Room is from $1449 a person, twin share, including airport transfers, breakfast and dinner daily, free land and water sports, plus unlimited water skiing.
A five-night stay in a Junior Suite at the five-star Dinarobin Hotel Golf and Spa is from $2799 a person, twin share, including airport transfers, breakfast and dinner daily, free land and water sports, unlimited water skiing and nightly entertainment.
All prices valid until September 30. 1300 939 414, flightcentre.com.au.
See + do
A full-day minibus excursion to Piton de la Fournaise or Cilaos on Reunion is €64 ($85) a person, including expert guide, park fees and traditional creole lunch.
A popular way to view the three cirques and the volcano on Reunion is by helicopter, from €190 an adult. www.helilagon.com. Flight Centre can incorporate tours and activities into an itinerary. 1300 939 414.
Casela Bird and Nature Park, Royal Road, Cascavelle, Mauritius. +230 452 2828, caselayemen.mu. Open seven days, 9am-5pm. Pay 500 rupees ($16) plus park entry (300 rupees) for the dubious privilege of spending 15 minutes in a cage with lions and cheetahs.
La Rhumerie de Chamarel, Route Royale, Chamarel, Mauritius. Open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am-5.30pm. Rum tastings and tour, 350 rupees. +230 483 7980, rhumeriedechamarel.com.
The battle for honeymooners
Mauritius is a honeymoon honeypot; Reunion Island is gaining a reputation as an alternative for active newlyweds. Which one you choose says more about you than the destination. Try this ready reckoner ...
We love being pampered
That's why you like the look of Mauritius. Enjoy having your own butler at your Trou aux Biches villa or choose between the balneotherapy room, the ayurvedic area or the meditation deck at the spa at Dinarobin.
We want romantic moments
A sunset catamaran cruise from the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, is as romantic as it gets. Just you and your beloved, some friendly Mauritians happy to pass you a cool beer or nice rum, a refreshing breeze, orange sky — it's not hard to get into the mood for lurve.
We want to experience something different, please. You're unlikely to bump into Jenny from HR while honeymooning on Reunion Island. Its Frenchness lends an air of Euro flair, it has genuine eco-credentials and there are activities you can do that don't appear in many honeymoon snaps, such as canyoning and volcano walking.
We don't like noisy kids
This is a dead heat between Reunion Island and Mauritius. In the French tradition, both islands are set up to readily accept under 12s and the better resorts have excellent kids' clubs.
We want to get active
Reunion Island is for you. Its mountainous terrain makes it an ideal place to break out in a sweat — hiking, horse riding, rock climbing and white-water rafting should be on your itinerary. There's also some of the best deep-sea fishing and scuba-diving on the planet.